Posted by D.K. Row, The Oregonian
October 30, 2008
David Reed, the fine New York abstract painter, has a show in
Portland over at Reed College's Cooley Gallery. The show, assembled
by Cooley director Stephanie Snyder, gathers paintings made by Reed
during the 1960s up through the present day. It's an exhilarating
journey into abstraction. Bob Hicks will be reviewing the show very
soon, and I'll post it on the visual arts blog.
Meantime, I met up with David recently. He's in town for about a
week. Aside from duties related to the opening of the show and a
lecture that he gave Wednesday night at Reed, he'll be teaching a few
classes. And, he'll be revisiting some memories: David, who was born
in San Diego, graduated from Reed College in 1968.
After getting his degree, David eventually moved to New York where he
was part of that wave of artists who squatted in empty lofts and
helped settle downtown New York. There have been rough patches, but
mostly happy times, I believe. Reed has crafted a pretty impressive
career, though he's not as famous as other New York artists of his
generation, such as Julian Schnabel and David Salle. Like his friend,
Jonathan Lasker, who has a show at the Portland Art Museum right now,
Reed's had a deeply estimable career. There have been regular
exhibits at the Max Protetch Gallery since 1976, and nods from
European museums and the requisite foundation grants. Above all, he's
made some really good and often gorgeous abstract paintings.
I taped part of my conversation with David. My questions often
meandered -- I was trying to address topics that wouldn't be included
in a review and issues not covered in the few essays on David for the
show's catalogue. But David was a good sport, always providing
illuminating, warm and serious answers.
The interview was edited for concision and clarity.
Q: There's a tree from one of the earliest paintings in the show that
is still here on the Reed campus.
A: Yeah, when I was a student in the '60s, the classes were held in a
geodesic dome, one of Buckminster Fuller's first domes and it was
here on campus. And behind the dome where we held the classes there
was an orchard with these walnut trees. So the teacher, Bill
Midgette, had us go into the orchard and make paintings from nature.
Q: This was '64?
A: No, '65.
Q: One thing I notice about the show is the dramatic evolution of
your work. One could think more than one painter is exhibiting on
these walls. Can you talk about the evolution of your work over the years?
A: The earliest paintings in the show -- from '65-68 -- are paintings
of nature done from the landscape. I was learning about color and
light and space at the time, and what a painting was. I was creating
this emotional connection to the landscape. A lot of the paintings
were done in the Southwest, and I had an idea about the big space
there: if I could paint that space and if I understood that then I
could understand Abstract Expressionism. Because those paintings had
a limitless, huge space.
Q: Were you struggling with just formal ideas of making a painting
rather than what a painting meant?
A: Oh no. As a student, I really believed that everything had to have
an emotional and philosophical meaning to it, even an ethical
meaning. I did not believe at all in just learning formal rules about
how to make a painting -- say something like Josef Albers' color
theory. I felt you shouldn't learn that until you tried to make those
discoveries on your own.
Q: You mentioned Abstract Expressionism. By the '60s, painting had
begun to move away from that movement, yet it still was a dominant presence.
A: When I was here at Reed, there was a Rockefeller Foundation grant
that students could apply for and take a year's leave. So I went to
New York and chose to go to the Studio School. It was a breakaway
school founded by students who had left the Pratt Institute, opened a
loft and invited artists they respected to talk to the students. A
lot of them were second generation Abstract Expressionists. It was
amazing to meet and hear those people talk about art. I had an
amazing first meeting with Milton Resnick. They had an unusual way of
speaking and talking about art. At first, I couldn't understand it --
it was all stories and metaphors. But I was determined to figure it
out. I learned so much from them.
Q: You must have been 20 years old?
A: Yes, I was about 20.
Q: Were you totally intimidated? How did you get beyond that in order
to absorb the lessons they had to teach?
A: Let me tell you about my first meeting with Milton Resnick. The
Studio school was in a loft building on Broadway and Bleecker
streets. I was living on the East Side and walked over to school. I
got there late one day and as I got in the elevator, a bum got into
the elevator with me wearing a long, greasy black coat, with long
hair, and he was limping. He had open wounds behind his ears that you
get from malnutrition. I looked at him and he looked like Antonin
Artaud, who was a character that obsessed me. I thought: this is a
bum, maybe even an artist. I wondered what he would do once he got
into the elevator. But he got off on the floor where the school was.
So I followed him. He started talking to one of the students who had
done a cubist style still life with all of this thick paint.
He (the bum) looked at the painting, and then he took his hand and
scratched down the surface, ruining the painting. The student was
horrified, and the bum said: "You have to break through the surface.
I know, I know, you think you'll fall through the floor and be in
hell. But you won't. You'll be right here." And then he took his coat
and made this gesture like a bird, a crow. Again, I was convinced it
was Artaud's ghost come to haunt me. The student was terrified and
some others, including the school's director, grabbed the bum and
tried to drag him away into the elevator. But the bum said: "You
misunderstand me. I'm Milton Resnick. You asked me to come here and teach!"
That was the first time I saw Milton. He stayed that day at the
school until 2 or 3 in the morning, telling us stories. I didn't
understand anything, but I tried. In the end, I think I understood
what he was saying.
Q: How much of your work from the '90s and after was informed by what
happened during the '80s art scene, when market concerns prevailed
over artistic ones?
A: When I came to New York in '71, and stayed permanently, painting
had been declared dead. Over. I decided then that I loved painting
and would do it and didn't care if no one paid attention. I was poor,
struggling, had a young son. I didn't think there was interest in
what I was doing but that gave me freedom to do what I wanted. I had
colleagues, and we talked about painting, and we were part of a
community, though none of us thought there would be attention. Then,
in the '80s, came the Neo-Expressionists. I felt my work was
different from theirs. I wasn't sympathetic to them. I knew some of
them, like Julian Schnabel. I liked their early work but not what
they were doing then. I used to say: I lived on their scraps. I
imagined a big feast with Schnabel and David Salle and some food
would fall off to the side. And that would be for me and my friends.
We were painters, too. Because, I felt, if there was interest in
their work, then there was interest in mine.
Then, in the '90s, came the Neo-Geo painters. That was more
intellectual abstract painting and that opened some more interest in
my work. Historically, that was how my work entered into the
dialogue, which is strange as I had been working since the '70s. But
there was relationship to their work, with Phillip Taffe. I feel
proud to have been part of a New York painting culture that's existed
in good times and bad.
Q: You've been living in Tribeca since the '70s and witnessed the
historic evolution of the contemporary artistic culture there. Can
you talk about the evolution of that place?
A: I was the adviser of a show curated by Katy Siegel, "High Times,
Hard Times: New York Painting 1967-75." And when I came to New York,
there were a number of experimental, abstract artists that I looked
up to. I found that until recently a lot of their work has been
forgotten. Someone like Lee Lozano, and Carolee Schneemann, Jo Baer,
Mary Heilmann ... Those days were different, certainly. You could be,
say, on the cover of Artforum. But then disappear, forgotten by
history. A lot of the artists left New York; some were successful,
mainly the ones who also had careers in Europe. It was a moment of
abstract painting culture that meant a lot to me. And now there is
interest in it again.
In terms of social changes, no one (else) lived downtown. I could
walk home from bars and not see a single person. We were marginal and
poor. Now my neighborhood (Reed still lives downtown) has the highest
income of any zip code in the country. All the movie stars live
there. Back then we had to pretend we weren't living there; we had to
hide our beds. We were living (squatting) in old factories that
smelled and were drafty. Now, it's a marketing thing.
Q: The romance of New York is that it was the place you went to
re-create yourself and become what many call the artistic hero.
Alfred Kazin wrote about this a lot in his books on New York. Does
this great literary and artistic notion of the artist-hero still have import?
A: I think it does. Many of the artists from the "High Times" show
came from working class families from the Midwest, and they came to
New York to be artists -- to be part of the culture there. That's
what I loved about Abstract Expressionism; there was a feeling that
it was open to anyone, there was a humanist feeling that I loved.
That's still true about New York to some extent. You can come there
and after two weeks you become a New Yorker. My wife is from Maine
and there are people who have lived there for 30 years but their
neighbors don't think they are "Mainers"
Q: This show at Reed College is called "Lives of Paintings." Why?
A: Stephanie (Snyder, the director of the Cooley Gallery) and I
worked on the idea of the show together. Our idea was to have a slow
show, like you have slow food. Borrow the paintings locally, bring
them together and trace their histories. One painting, "#26," came
back here for a show at Reed in '74. My roommate from college bought
it. It's been here in Portland ever since. I wanted to see it with a
new painting next to it and make a comparison.
Similarly, there are also three paintings in the show owned by a
collector in Seattle, Lisa Ann Fevaro. And she wrote an essay for the
catalogue about what it has been like to live with a painting of
mine. So I wanted to trace, in an anthropological way, where the
paintings have been, what they have been though. To trace their
lives. So it's about their lives, not mine: I wanted to imply that
paintings are alive. Barnett Newman once talked about how paintings
told him how long to make a certain area of color. That's how I feel.
The paintings tell me what to do; they've changed me. When I was a
young student here, I would hide from the world and push the
paintings out in front of me, and hide behind them. But the opposite
ended up being true: the paintings have pushed me out into the world
and they've told me what to become and how to change.
Q: You are very aware of the times you are living in. Was some of
your work from the '60 informed by the politics of that time?
A: Definitely. There's a piece in the "High Times" show by Carolee
Schneemann, a video taped piece. She covers her body with collage
paper and glue and then rolls around the floor. It's very attractive,
maybe a little narcissistic. It's a funny idea. It was called "Body
Collage" -- her body and life become part of a painting. In the end,
she stands up and takes a particular pose. It's a pose of the
children being napalmed (depicted) in that famous photograph by Nick
Ut. Suddenly, there's a twist to her work. It's not about an
attractive woman's body but a napalmed body. There's a shift to
politics. A lot of the work has that.
Q: Let's talk about your most recent work. Any political undertones
to them? You mentioned that we are living in dangerous times.
A: These are heavy questions. It's hard for me to talk about them.
Let me go at them indirectly.
My earlier paintings have a direct relationship to the body of the
viewer. A mark is made. You know how it is made. You feel a physical
body. The newer, larger paintings are made horizontally rather than
vertically. And the marks suggest a ghost body, or a virtual body
that hovers in front of the painting. It's also a media body. I think
a lot of us are now part of our own bodies and part of a media body.
We are on cell phones. We're in movie theaters. We are both here but
some place else at the same time. How do we live this life where we
are both our physical selves and something else? I'm hoping my
paintings will help negotiate that and what this ghost body is.
I was just in Seville, in Spain. My project there was to look at 17th
Century Spanish painters who painted religious experiences because I
felt those visions had something to do with this media world we are
part of now. Those painters were controlled by the church. It was the
time of the Inquisition; the church didn't want people talking to
someone and telling them things they didn't approve of.
So artists had to be careful. The overt subject matter couldn't be
anything that the church objected to. They had to make the forms
read. So there was pressure in the forms to make them different from
what the overt subject matter was. And I started to think: this is
the beginning of the kind of painting I care about. They discovered
through that process that painting could have certain meanings that
are useful to people, meanings that aren't easy to articulate. It's
not easy to say what those meanings are. But those meanings help us
as humans. To stay alive.
Today, we also have a media that tries to control the means of our
lives, through the movies we see, advertising, etc. We need ways to
escape that just the way the Spanish needed to escape the Inquisition.
Q: We live in a period where everyone has become so conditioned by
synchronic activity and stimulus. Can art touch us, reach us, in the
same way it once did?
A: I hope so. I hope it can happen in all kinds of art. But the art
has to be different from what it was in the '60s to affect us. I
mean, I love Abstract Expressionism, but you can't repeat that now.
In order to learn from those artists, you have to do something
different. I've tried to do that.
Q: You were born in California.
A: Yes, San Diego.
Q: And you came to Portland to go to Reed. What was the art scene
like here in the '60s?
A: I was a very naive kid, very idealistic. I didn't come here to be
an artist. I started out as a pre-med major. It was because of Bill
Midgette that you could be smart and intellectual about art here. He
gave me ways to think about art that were meaningful. Because of him,
I became an artist. At that time, you could not graduate with an art
degree from Reed. But the college had a joint program with the Museum
I was a student with strong beliefs, one of those pesky ones. Because
there was a joint program with the Museum school, I went there for a
class. There, the teacher had the students drawing in a particular
way, a style that had to do with lines and modeling. He had a more
decorative, more formal reason for doing it that way, not an
intellectual reason. The teacher said I could draw the way I wanted
but that I had to stay in the back of the class and that none of the
students could see my work. When some did look -- because they wanted
to, because it was forbidden -- the teacher threw me out of the
class. They wouldn't let me back into the school.
Q: Hmmm...who did you study with at the Museum school?
A: I forgot. I've been trying to remember who. So I came back to
Reed. But there was no way of graduating with an art degree. Bill
Midgette changed that. In my graduating class, there were four or
five of us. We were the first art majors.
Q: What did the Reed education give you?
A: It was a great education for an artist. It was a real, strong
liberal arts education -- it gave me a sense of history and culture
and politics and the world. That has been an enormous help to me over
Q: The consensus path for becoming an artist these days is to go to
an art school. Personally, I think it's helpful to get some liberal
arts training first.
A: I agree with you. It's curious: I've taught quite a bit and in art
schools. I've always argued that students need more of a liberal arts
education; they need to learn to write, to think. They should get a
liberal arts education first and then go to an art school.
Q: Do you think that context helps them create a relationship between
their art and the rest of the world?
A: That's a good way of putting it. A lot of my time is spent writing
and communicating with the world. That's what I was saying before:
the paintings forced me out into the world. I'm not great at it --
writing -- but I've learned over time.
Q: You've had a flourishing career. But also hard times. Sales are
important though they don't suggest the true artistic value of your
work. What's your attitude about all of that stuff?
A: It's wonderful for an artist to have the sense that their work is
important to someone and to have shows and opportunities and to talk
about them with other people. They can learn about their work from
those things. I've had shows in Europe, and chances to show in
museums there that I wasn't getting here in this country. It meant an
enormous amount to me; it gave me confidence, the courage to go on.
There are many artists who don't have those opportunities and they
often struggle. There are always those who survive no matter what.
But a lot of us are fragile and without some kind of support it's
hard to keep it going. Of course, there are always exceptions. I'd
like to say I would be strong enough to continue no matter what. But
I'm not sure I would be. I was very lucky to get the support I did.
There's a flip side, too. If you get too much support it can be bad.
You can get too arrogant. You don't question your work enough. I've
been lucky to have enough balance.
Q: You mentioned before the interview that the events of Sept. 11
affected your work. Jeffrey Kipnis mentions this in his essay for the
show's catalogue. Tell us more.
A: A lot of us painters were struck after the events of Sept. 11. The
weather was exceptionally beautiful in the weeks that followed.
There's a time in New York in the fall when the light is golden and
crystal clear. That's the kind of light that Matisse discovered in
New York while on his way back from Tahiti. We had that kind of light
in the weeks after Sept. 11. Which made it all the more painful,
because there was this kind of toxic cloud in the air changing the
color and light from this golden color to an off purple and magenta,
these terrifying colors. I think this painting (Reed points to one of
the latest works in the show) has some of the residue of those
experiences as does a lot of New York painting these days.
Q: You're going to be teaching a bit here while visiting. What do you
want to tell these kids who were not unlike you all those years ago
as they set off on their own artistic journey?
A: I was asked by Michael Knutson (a Reed College professor and
artist) to choose a text to read to the students. At first, I picked
Maurice Merleau-Ponty's "Cezanne's Doubt," which was influential on
me as a student. It said a painting can have doubts but still
proceed. You didn't have to know what you were doing ahead of time.
Then I picked an essay by Frank O'Hara, actually an interview with
Then I realized what I should have chosen: A talk by Milton Resnick
at the Studio School in 1968. It was a talk that kind of blew my
mind. I was there at the time. I guess I have tried, over the years,
to update his advice that he gave to us then. He was asking us
questions abut who should judge our work. Do we let others judge it
and do we care about their opinions? Do we judge it ourselves? If so,
what did that mean? He wanted us to think about these questions and
their consequences. In the end, he was arguing against any kind of
judgment. That was quite a remarkable position. And that's what I
would tell students. That it is possible to continue on while still in doubt.
Q: Let me return to your work a moment. You talk a lot about outline
and mark-making but never really about color. There's extraordinary
color in your work.
A: You're right. I was hiding what was important. Color is more
important to me than anything else. It's the real opening and
opportunity for painting now. In the world today, we see a lot of
wild and strange color -- commercially made color, the color of cars,
plastics, combined with the natural colors of the world, combined
with the media colors on television and movies and computer screens
and strange lights from all of those sources. All of this is
affecting us all of the time. But we don't have emotional
connotations for those colors. Painting is a way to deal with those
emotional connections and integrate them into this wonderful history
that painting is. So, I say color is the great opportunity for painting.
Q: I'll put you on the spot: If you were a historian, how would you
categorize your painting?
A: I feel that the painters of my generation, like Jonathan Lasker,
we've added something to the vocabulary of abstraction. It's
difficult to come up with a word for it. Stephanie (Snyder) came up
with a word for it -- she calls it "linguistic abstraction." That's
not bad, but not so good, either. I don't know what the term would
be. Maybe additive abstraction? A lot of Modernist art removed
things. We've done the opposite. We've added things.
Q: As you say, there are bits of everything to your work.
A: It's eclectic.
Q: That can be a dangerous word.
A: Yes, a dangerous word. But it's something I would embrace as I
would the word "mannerist." I like being late in a tradition. You
know, the Abstract Expressionists wanted to be either the first or
the last artists. Philip Guston wanted to be the first painter.
Milton Resnick wanted to be the last painter. I don't want to be
either first or last. I want to be right in the middle. I want to
have some painters after me and also love some painters before me.
A: Because I want to see the development of a continuing language of painting.
Q: I like that. That's very spiritual, very humanistic.
A: Thank you. I hope so.